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Could low-power FM community stations make radio enjoyable again?

Radio used to be a source of excitement for me. As a teenager, I listened to Casey Kasem's American Top 40 every weekend. My ears were perked as I wondered what song would be No. 1.

Today, radio is often a source of frustration for me. I listen in the car, pressing "scan" in a futile attempt to hear something that I didn't hear yesterday, and the day before that ... and the day before that.

There are thousands of songs, so why don't stations play more of them? The answer: Ratings and money determine what we hear.

Community radio, however, offers more variety and greater listening pleasures. And due to the passage of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, a large number of low-power FM (LPFM) radio licenses will soon be open to qualified nonprofit, community-based organizations. They will serve listeners within a 10-mile radius.

Chet Gardiner and Jason LeValley—co-organizers of Community Radio Tucson (communityradiotucson.org)—want to get the word out about this opportunity.

"We hope to entice other entities in Tucson to apply for and receive a license in their part of town," says Gardiner. We're looking for any community group that wants to get their message out. ... We want to find kindred (groups) and make common bonds."

Both Gardiner and LeValley have experience in radio. Gardiner started out on Free Radio Berkeley and has been a recording engineer since 1969. LeValley was a DJ on community radio station KXCI FM 91.3 and co-hosted Locals Only, among other duties.

Gardiner and LeValley presented a community-radio workshop in July. A second workshop will be held at 1 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 23, in Studio A at Access Tucson, 124 E. Broadway Blvd. Attendees will learn about low-power FM radio, Federal Communications Commission requirements, the license-application process and more.

Gardiner says there are 10 open "slots," or frequencies, in the greater Tucson area. The minimum number of LPFM stations is six. The other four may be occupied by LPFM stations, or they may go to stations that have filed translator applications. (Basically, the approval of a translator application expands the reach of an existing station. There are 59 translator applications from the Tucson area pending, and this includes three applications from KXCI. The fate of these applications has yet to be determined.)

The window for new LPFM radio applications will not be open until mid-2012, says Gardiner, and Community Radio Tucson is here to help interested organizations with the application process. A particular community group or nonprofit doesn't need to go it alone, as there are opportunities to partner with others. As a hypothetical, Gardiner says the Community Food Bank could join with Tucson Community Supported Agriculture.

"A nonprofit applying for and gaining a license gets a degree of responsibility. (The nonprofit is) responsible for what's said (on the air), fundraising, the operation of a physical station. ... For the license-holder, the buck stops there," says Gardiner.

"It awards them a greater degree of visibility," adds LeValley. "They are going to be able to reach more people they can help and (people who) can benefit from their services."

So what is needed to build a community radio station? "They will need a transmitter, antenna and studio. They would need to build a physical plant that can broadcast the radio. (All of that) could cost between $14,000 and $40,000," explains Gardiner. As a further breakdown, he estimates $2,000 to $4,000 for an antenna (don't skimp, he advises); $4,000 to $6,000 for a transmitter (don't skimp on that, either); $1,000 for audio-processing gear; and $2,000 to $3,000 for emergency-alert hardware.

Once an application is submitted, it can take between six and 12 months before a license is issued, says Gardiner, and then the station must go live within a three-year window. Once on the air, a large percentage of content must be locally produced.

So there may yet be hope for radio. With the geographical segregation of Tucson, radio may bring us closer together.

"The most important thing I see that's needed in this town is a way for us to communicate with each other, to break down the barriers of time and space that keep us from knowing what each other is doing," says Gardiner. "(When listening), another mind gets ignited; it gets them thinking. That's the thing radio does."

More by Irene Messina

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